02/04/2009 12:00AM

Dixie Chatter back on main track for Strub


ARCADIA, Calif. - Dixie Chatter's best race at 2 was a win in the Grade 1 Norfolk Stakes on a synthetic track at Santa Anita. His best performance at 3 was a victory in the Oceanside Stakes on turf.

When he makes his 4-year-old debut in Saturday's $250,000 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita, Dixie Chatter returns to a synthetic surface for the first time since last June.

His presence on a synthetic track is not a season-defining decision on surfaces, trainer Richard Mandella said. He admits to not knowing which surface is best for Dixie Chatter.

"I'm not sure if he's a [turf] miler or better on the main track," Mandella said.

Dixie Chatter will face a stern test in the 1 1/8-mile Strub, which drew a field of 13 4-year-olds, nine of whom are stakes winners. Dixie Chatter must beat Gio Ponti, who won the Sir Beaufort Stakes on Dec. 26; Cowboy Cal, who won the San Pasqual Handicap on Jan. 10; and Nownownow, the winner of the San Fernando Stakes on Jan. 17.

Dixie Chatter has lost his last two starts - a third in the Oak Tree Derby in October and a fourth in the Hollywood Derby in November, both on turf.

"He had a rough trip in the Oak Tree Derby," Mandella said. "I thought it was a good race."

Dixie Chatter breaks from the rail in the Strub, his first start on a synthetic track since a third in the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park last June.

The Strub is the last of four consecutive stakes on Saturday's 10-race program.

Stardom Bound, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2008, makes her 3-year-old debut in the $300,000 Las Virgenes Stakes. She will be a heavy favorite in a field of nine.

There are 10 starters in the $100,000 Thunder Road Handicap over a mile on turf, including Monterey Jazz, the winner of the 2008 Strub Stakes.

The $200,000 Robert Lewis Stakes for 3-year-olds, a key prep to the Santa Anita Derby on April 4, is led by Pioneerof the Nile, the winner of the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park in December.

Rail Trip may await Big Cap

Rail Trip, undefeated after three starts, including an allowance race over 1 1/16 miles on Jan. 30, may make his next start in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 7, trainer Ron Ellis said on Wednesday.

Ellis said last weekend that he was concerned by the lack of stakes opportunities at a mile over the next six weeks for Rail Trip. That has led him to consider the 1 1/4-mile Big Cap for the horse.

Handle down ontrack

Through the first six weekends of the meeting, ontrack handle is down 5 percent while ontrack attendance is up 4 to 5 percent, said track president Ron Charles.

"We're holding our own ontrack," Charles said. "We're down [in state] and out of state. Vegas isn't helping us."

Charles said negotiations were scheduled to continue on Wednesday to try and find a resolution to an on-going dispute with Nevada racebooks over the distribution of simulcast revenue. Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields are among five tracks that are not sending their signals to the Nevada race books, forcing them to book action on the races.

"It's insane we don't have a deal," Charles said.

Regarding purses, Charles said no cut was imminent, but said the situation is being closely monitored. "The next couple of weeks will tell," he said.

One promotion that has helped ontrack attendance is free general admission on Fridays. The five Fridays in January averaged 6,208. The five Thursdays in January averaged 4,643, including 10,132 on New Year's Day.

Unlike last year, no days have been lost to poor track conditions. In the first six weeks of the 2007-08 meeting, 11 days of racing were lost when parts of the main track failed to drain sufficiently. Last summer, the main track underwent a significant renovation to replace the Cushion Track synthetic surface with a Pro-Ride surface.

Rain is forecast for this weekend.